It’s a weekday afternoon in mid-March, and farmer Jeff Heepke is putting the finishing touches on last year’s crop of corn and soybeans.
Behind his tractor, he’s pulling a 48-foot-wide field cultivator, churning up dust and scrambling harvest remnants into the soil in preparation for spring planting. This particular patch of land — 20 acres off Route 3 south of Interstate 270 — is a small piece of the 4,000 acres, between Granite City and Rockbridge, Ill., farmed by the 33-year-old Edwardsville grower and two younger brothers.
Just like last year, Heepke is optimistic about new technology he’ll be using this year, his second with Monsanto’s fledgling FieldScripts program.
Like everything else falling under the precision agriculture umbrella, FieldScripts aims to help farmers squeeze as much production as possible from every inch of their soil.
The iPad Heepke carries in his cab displays a map of this 20-acre tract. The multicolored graphic shows how much corn he’s supposed to plant in each section of the plot.
The strongest, most fertile areas will get up to 40,000 seeds per acre, while weaker areas might get less than 28,000.
Before this? He’d just spread 32,000 seeds across every acre and hope for the best.
Monsanto says this kind of precision planting, based on detailed analysis of soil and land conditions, can improve corn yields by 10 bushels per acre. Nationally, yields can vary widely based on the weather. Last year was exceptionally strong, topping 158 bushels per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The company is launching the program this year in a few Midwestern states, including Illinois. But Heepke was part of a trial group last year and was able to use it on a quarter of his acreage.
He’s optimistic about the potential — even though his first run didn’t show any real benefit.
Turns out the areas with FieldScripts did about the same as those without it.
But that, he said, had more to do with last year’s record yields: “It wasn’t FieldScripts’ fault. It’s that the weather was exceptionally good.”
And he still believes.
“It all makes sense. It should work.”
Long gone are the days when growers relied on the Farmers’ Almanac to make critical planting decisions.
Today, iPads and smartphones are increasingly found in farmers’ tool kits. And there is no shortage of information that can be downloaded, sorted, cataloged and studied.
The challenge is making the right decisions based on that information, knowing that every field is unique, with different high spots, soil content and drainage patterns.
“It’s a story I always hear from farmers: I’ve got piles and piles of yield data. But I don’t know what to do with it,” said Brett Begemann, Monsanto’s president and chief operating officer.
That information overload is providing a new market for the agriculture giant and its competitors, who tout their ability to develop game plans for growers.
And not just from farm to farm. They say they can break fields into 10-square-meter sections, prescribing things such as optimal seed choices and planting depth.
It’s even possible, 10 to 20 years down the road, that technological advances will allow the development of growing plans broken down to the individual plant.
“We don’t have the capacity or technology to do that yet,” said John Fulton, associate professor of agriculture at Auburn University, who studies precision agriculture. “We’re just on the fringes, starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Monsanto’s foray into this realm got underway in earnest in 2012 with the announcement of FieldScripts and the $250 million purchase of Precision Planting, a Tremont, Ill., company whose products include the hardware used to control the distribution rate of seed planters.
Then in late 2013, the Creve Coeur-based firm threw nearly $1 billion into the purchase of the Climate Corporation, a Silicon Valley startup trying to leverage decades worth of weather and agriculture data.
The company, founded by a couple of former Google employees, sells crop and weather insurance. But it was the promise of its climate modeling that attracted Monsanto — despite the fact that it had, to date, failed to turn a real profit.
Climate Corp. says it can look at a wide range of factors — including historical weather trends, annual farm yields, insect populations, disease projections and soil characteristics — to guide key farming decisions. They help figure out things such as when to plant, what to plant, how much fertilizer to use and when to harvest. They also provide models showing how changes in those variables could impact yields.
Among other things, the company touts its ability to tell, within a hundredth of an inch, how much rain has fallen on a specific field — without ever setting foot on that chunk of land.
That’s not something farmers are all that willing to accept, said Anthony Osborne, Climate Corp.’s vice president of marketing.
“Typically, farmers will scatter rain gauges from field to field,” Osborne said. “They’re surprised you can do it without a rain gauge.”
There is, however, still the matter of proving to farmers that it works. And that it’s worth paying $15 an acre to use.
Climate Corp. has been running a free trial version that’s being used by farmers representing some 20 million acres across the country.
But in March, the company launched a paid, and upgraded, version of the application, with a promise of an extra $100 in profit for every acre under subscription.
In a move clearly designed to overcome some expected reluctance, the service comes with a satisfaction guarantee during its first year. Customers won’t have to pay for it if they don’t see enough benefit.
“Farmers are the prove-it-to-me customers,” Osborne said.
Protecting Market Share
While Monsanto takes steps to increase its precision agriculture offerings, it remains to be seen whether the acquisition of Climate Corp. will bring much in the way of new revenue.
Matt Arnold, an analyst with Edward Jones, likes the move for its strategic value at a time when everyone in the industry is trying to capture the attention of data-swamped farmers.
Earlier this year, Germany’s BASF and Moline’s John Deere announced a partnership to develop precision products, including field scouting and “tailored agronomic advice.” They hope to launch the first of those programs by year’s end.
And Switzerland-based Syngenta has its AgriEdge Excelsior program, designed to help growers manage data and produce stronger yields.
Arnold said the acquisition of Climate Corp. could give Monsanto something unique to offer its customers — as well as a reason to continue buying the company’s seeds.
“Strategically, it could separate Monsanto from the pack a bit,” Arnold said.
But he’s skeptical of whether Monsanto’s new toy will pull in enough paid acres to make a noticeable impact on earnings.
“I could be wrong,” Arnold said. “It’s very possible they’ll wind up with a hit service offering.”
Monsanto is certainly touting it as more than a way to protect seed sales.
Said Begemann, the firm’s president: “Five to 10 years from now, I believe we are going to look back and its going to be as transformative for our company and agriculture as biotech was.”